Why you should care
Because beer is not to be feared.
It’s the end of April in the southwestern German town of Karlsruhe. Three guys who look like brothers are huddled around an elevator at the appropriately named Dudefest. Bearded and undeniably American, they’re talking quietly among themselves before someone mentions that they’re in the band Pontiak. The Dudefest 2017 sees the band, 11 albums deep on the estimable Thrill Jockey Records label, sharing the space with Chelsea Wolfe, Dälek and, total disclosure, my band OXBOW.
“Hey! You guys Americans?” I say, lifting a variation of one of Dennis Hopper’s lines from Apocalypse Now.
“Yeah. Say, what are you drinking?” Bass player Jennings Carney introduces himself with a smile, and it doesn’t take long for conversation to turn to what they do for “a living,” to bring in cash to keep the rock dream alive. “Well, we make beer.” After touring the world several times over and following the adage it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, the Southern boys — and brothers as it turns out — decided in 2014 to start brewing beer they could actually drink. “I don’t want to get the same pizza all over the country, the same tacos, the same cheese or wine,” Jennings says. “Why would I want the same beer?”
They started as home brewers, but their deep and obsessive passion for beer saw them partnering with a friend and opening up Pen Druid Brewing in Virginia. “My brothers [Van and Lain, guitar and drums, respectively] and I had the idea that we wanted to focus on wild and spontaneous fermentation — capturing the terroir of the yeasts and microflora of the Piedmont of Virginia,” Jennings explains. The wood-fired and mashing in oak came later as an organic outgrowth of their beer-making approach.
The only way to know for sure that it’s “goddamned good beer” — as Jennings claims — is to sup it.
And that approach is mixed up not only in the art of their beer but also in the place in space where that art is exercised. For the Carneys, the beer they make — a 14-month-aged Wild Blonde blackberry, a Wild Blonde with Virginia-grown malt and local organic wheat, and a Wild IPA made from raw wheat and oats and hopped with Mandarina Bavaria — is the locus point of the culture of the people who made it. Well, that and the weather and “the agricultural and microcultural elements of the beer.”
“We use a culture of microflora that we grew up from right outside the brewery,” says Jennings. That plus a lot of Virginia-grown grain and fruit. So when you drink a Pan Druid, “you are tasting not just a beer made in Virginia, but an actual Virginian native beer.” So on with the wood-firing and barrel-fermenting.
Facts that might interest a brewmaster, but ones, according to Richard Sterling, an American expat in Cambodia and a Lowell Thomas Award–winning travel and food writer, that are “meaningless to the lay drinker.” Sterling doesn’t see the point in wood-firing, and says that “more serious brewers who want the taste of wood cask use a smoked grain.”
A critique that Jennings claims is comical. ”We use wood to boil our wort, not to flavor it,” he says. ”But if you’re in touch with Richard Sterling and he has any questions about brewing please let him know we’d be happy to chat.”
So, in the end, the only way to know for sure that it’s “goddamned good beer” — as Jennings claims — is to sup it. Precisely why, later, we found ourselves at the Carney brewery, right next to the Thornton River in Rappahannock County, just a few miles downstream from the family farm. And the verdict on the taste? A mouthful of Virginia. And that’s a damned good thing.
Get Some: Pen Druid Brewery
- Where to Buy: Only at the brewery, located at 7 River Lane, East Annex, Sperryville, Virginia.
- Cost: 750ml bottles cost from $14 to $25, draft pints are $6 to $8.